The use of gender stereotypes as a lazy way of characterization

The starting point for this train of thought was a FB discussion/thread I set in motion by posing this question: Why is the character of Velma from Scooby Doo the subject of so much scrutiny about her gender and sexual preference?

 

This question has been troubling me since I saw a series of articles – and then did an internet search – into the speculation that Velma is a lesbian. At first, I thought that was a wonderful idea, as this was a break away from the hetero-normative stereotype prevalent in children’s and young adult genre, marginalising those individuals who were LGBT. Then I was disturbed by the idea, firstly that society felt the need to sexualize the character of Velma, and then by the way her implied sexuality was being constructed by the use of stereotypes.

Here are some of the original responses to that FB posting:

Helen Patrice: Because she is smart, and therefore must be called into question. Smart woman? Must be something ‘odd’ about her.

Andrew Perry: I’m not sure it’s the smartness – I think it’s more a case of “this character isn’t sexualised or isn’t shown being interested in men all the time, and thus must be lesbian”. It’s like when I was at school – I didn’t spend all my time chasing girls, and people therefore started assuming I was gay. My wife knows better, and that’s enough for me. 🙂

Lynne Lumsden Green:  You’ve all made my point for me. Why does characterization HAVE to include sexualisation of the character? And yet just about every how-to-write-for-young-adults mentions the need for ‘pairing up’ of characters or romance or what you want to call it. Which must marginalize those teens who aren’t that fascinated in the topic. It is a real stereotype to believe every teen is only interested in sex. It must put a great deal of pressure on all teens to ‘link up’, even when they aren’t really ready for it.

Andrew Perry:  Exactly. Even things with pre-pubescent kids have to include some sort of romance subplot, which just doesn’t make sense.

Lynne Lumsden Green: I tend to downplay any romantic entanglements in my YA novels. Romance has to actually play a role in the plot, or I don’t crowbar one in for the sake of having romance. Could be why I don’t get more published …

Andrew Perry: That’s exactly it – production execs love romance plots. I’m with you, though; romance should feature if it comes naturally from the story or the characters. If the book/film would be essentially unchanged without it, it shouldn’t be there.

Sharon Norris: Velma is a stereotype thanks to the 1960s cartoon series. She’s the smart one, Daphne is the sexy one. If there is a lesson in this for us writers, it’s to not reinforce stereotypes.

Andrew Perry: I think one of the good things about that show is that, while Daphne was undeniably intended as “the sexy one”, she was never depicted as “the dumb one” – just that Velma was smarter. Not enough nowadays – never seen why being attractive and being smart should be considered mutually exclusive – but given that even in the nineties Barbies were being sold that said “I like shoes” and “Math is hard”…

David Godden: I think it’s because of her very deliberate androgynous characterisation.

Andrew Perry: I’m not sure I buy that – she didn’t seem androgynous at all. Decidedly female clothes, hairstyle, figure, mode of speech… Is there any particular aspect you’re thinking of?

David Godden: I don’t know really. Everything you say is very obviously true, but despite the evidence of my own eyes, she/he has a very definite androgynous quality. A very distinctive indistinctiveness if that makes sense. I suppose ultimately, perception is as subjective as anything else.

Angela Hall: I doubt sexuality was even a consideration when she was drawn. People are silly.

Andrew Perry: Exactly – I think she was designed purely to contrast against Daphne, just as wossname [Fred], the bland one, was designed as a contrast against Shaggy.

Lynne Lumsden Green: @ Davo: I never saw Velma as androgynous since no boy would wear a skirt (and it was a skirt, not a kilt). But I find it interesting that you perceived her as such. Is she androgynous by comparison to the much more feminine Daphne?

And Angela and Sharon are both right. I doubt Velma’s sexuality was ever an issue back in the Seventies, even though she was the ‘smart’ one. It is our modern culture that has become obsessed with defining people by who they are with rather than by what they have achieved.

Andrew Perry: Well, “who they are” is arguably what people should be defined by, influenced as it is by all aspects of their lives, achievements, genetics, etc. The oddity nowadays is that people are defined by their sexual preference, which isn’t helped by all those people who *do* define themselves by it; the example that springs to mind would be the difference between Jack on Will & Grace and Carter on Spin City. One is utterly defined by his sexuality, while the other is a far more rounded character where his preferences are just a background aspect.

David Godden:  I think Lynne, maybe androgynous was the wrong word to use here. I feel that morphic better describes how she came across as a character. I suppose it also draws on the outdated gender stereo types of the time (we are talking 40 years ago). She had a bob haircut, wore that turtle neck sweater and seemed to morph between male and female to my young (at the time) eyes. There didn’t seem to be anything definitive about her masculine or feminine persona.

Lynne Lumsden Green: @ Andrew: As much as I enjoyed the character of Jack, he was too much of a stereotype. Even Will was startling stereotyped at times. And this was true for the heterosexual characters; they were just as much a stereotype. It is a lazy way of making a characterization.

@ Davo: I wonder how much her morphing was due to her contrast to Daphne and how much was due to her presentation as the intellectual. After all, she had a soft, girlish voice and was quite helpless when she lost her glasses (which she seemed to do once every show).

Andrew Perry: That’s exactly my point – Jack’s character was essentially “the really gay guy”, while Carter was a much better-written character.

What became clear to me is that gender stereotypes seem to make for bad characterisation. This may seem to be an obvious point. However, the use of stereotypes isn’t a bad thing in itself – parody wouldn’t work without them. They are a great stepping off point, particularly with the goal of breaking the expectation of a stereotype.

However, what is happening with Velma is that a stereotype is being imposed on her externally. The original construction of characterisation of Velma appears to have not included any form of sexuality. In fact, she appeared asexual … something that David touched upon in the thread discussion. In the 1960s and 1970s children’s programming, there was no expectation of romance, and so the characters were not overtly sexualised.

A short internet search reveals that Dobie Gillis was the inspiration of the characters for Scooby Doo, and Velma was based on Zelda. From Wikipedia: Zelda, who was bright in academics, athletic, and somewhat plain-looking, was smitten with the handsome clean-cut teenager Dobie, who had his romantic sights on the most conventionally attractive girls. Zelda was always there for Dobie and his friend, Maynard. Zelda especially irritated Dobie by winkling her nose at him. He often winkled back as a reflex action, he claimed, only to warn Zelda, “Now stop that, Zelda!” Zelda assured Dobie that he would eventually come to love her through the influence of propinquinty – in other words she would wear him down. As well, other influences were Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and the radio program I Love a Mystery.

It is an irony that Velma and Shaggy were originally conceived to be siblings, because in recent years there have been attempts to link them romantically – when, if you take the original inspiration into account, Fred (Dobie analogue) was more likely to be Velma’s romantic interest. Zelda/Velma wasn’t the romantic, ‘sexy’ girl … that was Daphne’s role. It might be best if I leave a discussion of ‘Danger’ Daphne’s characterisation for another time.

In summary, I don’t think Velma was meant to have a sexual identity. In recent years, there has been a trend towards imposing a gendered/sexuality upon her characterisation, by using ‘clues’ that are either improvised from stereotypes or inferred by the agenda of the person making the assumptions. This trend is part of the general push in Western society to sexualise the behaviour of children and young adults. This trend is marginalising children and young adults who aren’t interested in finding a romantic partner, as society pushes towards normalizing LGBT relationships in popular media.

Think of ‘Twilight’. It was most popular with the pre-teens (and middle-aged women, but that isn’t pertinent to this discussion). Bella’s whole identity was defined by her relationship to Edward. She was unable to function normally as a single girl. Velma, on the other hand, is intelligent and adventurous and comfortable in herself without needing a partner. And that makes some people as uncomfortable as a homophobe at a gay Mardi Gras.

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3 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Gender and Sexuality, Steampunk, Stereotypes, writing

3 responses to “The use of gender stereotypes as a lazy way of characterization

  1. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    I am reblogging several of my posts from two years ago, before I had many people following this Blog. I am still officially on holidays.

  2. Jinkies! You’ve got some really smart (and very polite!) discussion partners there. Absolute gold! (It was a writers’ thread, right?)

    On Velma: What I have come across is also very interesting – because almost without exception, guys regard Velma as incredibly sexy BECAUSE SHE WAS SUCH A NERD! (A case of ‘Nerds of feather flock together’?)
    Daphne, in the next breath, gets voted a distant second BECAUSE SHE WAS SUCH A STEREOTYPE!

    As to her sexual orientation – I’ve seen no opinion placing her as lesbian. The one romance that seemed to have inspired most of the commentators I’ve seen (and some of those are expressed purely as visual art. Example: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Commission-Johnny-and-Velma-319198801) are about her brief romantic affair with Johnny Bravo which occurred during a single cross-over episode run by Cartoon Network

    more info here:
    [http://johnnybravo.wikia.com/wiki/Velma_Dinkley]
    Seems she really had the hots for him too. But in the end, Velma turns Johnny down (he proposes to her!) because her work comes first. So once again she stayed true to the Velma-specific stereotype established around her – that she is not a conventional woman. Which neatly maintains the classic stereotype ‘of smart woman = not sexy/not interested in that stuff’.

    A more extended romantic arc DID occur between her and Shaggy in a re-boot series called “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” 2010 -2013.
    Here is a discussion forum on that romance: https://www.quora.com/When-did-the-Scooby-Doo-Velma-Shaggy-love-triangle-start

    Me? It is best I keep my relationship with Velma purely to myself!

    • As a small girl, Velma was my favourite because she was the sensible one. As an adult, she is my favourite because she is the sensible one (most of the time). And thank you for all those brilliant links. I didn’t know of the Johnny Bravo romance!

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